Viewing Posts by Lynda Bourne
The Problem With Paradox
Categories: Decision Making
by Lynda Bourne
The dictionary defines a paradox as a statement or group of statements that, despite sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems to defy logic or intuition. An example of a paradox is: “This statement is false”—if it is, it is not; and if it isn’t, it is.
A well-known project management example is Cobb’s Paradox: “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure—so why do they still fail?” The apparently true statement is that we know how to prevent project failure, but do we really know how to make projects successful? And if we do, the illogical element is, why do we let them fail?
This concept extends into the realm of project management. Virtually every management system generates a range of contradictions that can be removed by better design. It also creates a series of paradoxes that can’t be removed because both factors that create the paradox are important, but at the same time contradict each other.
This type of management paradox is defined as “a persistent contradiction between interdependent elements that resist a simple binary choice between the elements.”
Some of the more common paradoxes found in most organizations include:
The persistent nature of every paradox means the decision maker has to get used to living with contradictions. Dealing with the paradox requires intuitive judgment to decide on the best balance to strike between the competing elements in the current situation.
Group decision making, diversity, and consensus can help achieve the best judgment call. But there will always be viable alternatives—and any change in the situation will usually require the judgment to be adjusted. The problem with any intuitive judgment is that different people will arrive at different conclusions because they apply a different frame of reference to the problem.
The final element that makes paradox hard to live with is hindsight. Regardless of the decision made, balancing the competing elements in a paradox involves a compromise and different people will have differing opinions of the optimum balance point.
When circumstances at a later date show there was a better balance point, criticizing the original decision (and the decision maker) is very easy. The 20/20 vision afforded by hindsight rarely matches the uncertain fog that surrounded the possible futures confronting the decision maker.
Math does not help either; binary decisions have a 50/50 chance of being correct and these odds can be improved by the application of good decision-making processes. A paradox presents a continuum of choice. That means there is an almost unlimited array of possible options and the one chosen is highly unlikely to be the best in hindsight—the best outcome one can hope for is one that is reasonably close to the optimum.
This type of decision presents a real challenge to trained engineers and technical managers who expect to find the right solution for every problem.
Generally, at the technical level, there are correct solutions. But, if not, in most cases you know a decision is needed and can choose the lesser of two evils.
Good managers decide—lucky ones get it right (and you can usually correct wrong decisions).
The further up the organizational ladder you move, the more you will be exposed to paradox. Every decision you make to balance the competing elements in a paradox will be open to criticism.
It’s a tough place to be. How would you deal with a paradox in your environment?
Strategy In a VUCA World—Part 2
By Lynda Bourne
In part one of this post, I introduced the management concept VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
Managing VUCA effectively at the project level should not be underestimated: The agility and decision-making needed to respond to VUCA will inevitably have effects on the outcomes of projects and programs and, consequently, the direction of the organization.
Naturally, there will be a difference between planned and implemented strategy. One approach is to see this gap as “strategic non-alignment” and assume it’s bad. The alternative is to see the gap as strategy that emerges from the work of the organization and changes in the environment, then actively manage its effect to capture as much value as possible.
This idea is not new. It’s been nearly 40 years since the concept of emergent strategy was developed by academic and management author Henry Mintzberg. This concept seeks to create a framework that can identify and act on emerging strategies, resulting in a more incremental approach to strategy formulation. Developing strategy from the bottom up may be a novel concept for many organizations but academic studies suggest this is an important value-adding process.
Projects and programs are a rich source of VUCA, and almost everyone says successful project management offices (PMOs) and portfolio managers should have a strategic focus. Given that, I suggest it’s time to start conversations with your executive management about identifying and managing the emergent strategies that are appearing in your organization as a consequence of projects and programs responding to VUCA. This will maximize the value created and influence the next iteration of formal strategic planning.
In their 1985 paper Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent, Mintzberg and fellow academic and author, James A. Walters, concluded by suggesting “strategy formation walks on two feet, one deliberate the other emergent.”
The challenge for PMOs and portfolio management professionals is to engage with the gap between implementing strategy and adapting strategy. They also have to engage with the challenges that arise from allowing sufficient agility and flexibility to maximize value in a VUCA environment without sinking into undirected chaos.
By adapting these elements to the strategic levels of the organization, you may be able to reduce the potential chaos of VUCA within a project or program:
How do you reduce the potential chaos of VUCA?
Strategy In a VUCA World—Part 1
By Lynda Bourne
Traditionally, strategy and strategic alignment are viewed as a deliberate process. An organization’s governing body determines the vision and mission. Then, along with executive management, the governing body crafts a strategy to move the organization toward achieving that vision.
The result is a strategic plan that forms the basis for effective portfolio management. This plan sets the objectives for projects and programs and measures their success in terms of contributing to implementing the strategy and creating value.
In the last few years, however, management thinking has embraced the concept of VUCA and developed approaches to dealing with the challenges that the modern world presents.
VUCA, which originally emerged from military leaders, stands for:
Have you encountered VUCA on your projects? What form did it take?
Be sure to come back for second post on VUCA in a couple of days.
by Lynda Bourne
In my last post, I discussed one of the more effective approaches for understanding team interaction: the McKinsey 7-S framework. The basic premise of framework is that there are seven internal aspects of an organization that need to be aligned for a company to succeed:
Project managers can have the most impact on style and shared values. These elements are typically set at the beginning of a project and new team members tend to adapt based on what they see from their colleagues.
Changing these elements mid-project is difficult. If you start right, the tendency will be to perpetuate the good behaviors as the team grows.
However, if you need to spur a shift, I suggest taking these steps:
As you adjust and align the elements, you'll need to use an iterative approach. Make adjustments, then analyze how those changes have impacted other elements and their alignment. This may sound like hard work, but the end result of better performance will be worth it.
What are your tips for shifting your team’s style and shared?
by Lynda Bourne
I’ve always thought the McKinsey 7-S framework is one of the most effective approaches for understanding team interaction. Originally focused on large organizations, the concepts are equally valid for smaller groups, such as project teams. Let’s take a look.
Developed in the early 1990s by McKinsey & Co. consultants Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, the basic premise of the McKinsey 7-S framework is that there are seven internal aspects of an organization that need to be aligned for a company to succeed.
These elements are considered either “hard” or “soft”. The hard elements are easier to define, and management can directly influence them. They are:
The project’s strategy shapes the other hard elements, as the systems and structures used by the team need to support the implementation of the strategy — not work against it. The optimum structures and systems used in an agile project will be quite different, for example, than those used in a more traditional project.
The soft elements are more difficult to define, measure and document because they are influenced by personalities and company culture. They are:
The soft elements are probably more important than the hard elements. When you have a team made up of the “right people” (staff) with the “right skills” working in the “right way” (style) to achieve a shared vision, deficiencies in strategy, structure and systems can be mitigated.
At the center of both the hard and soft elements are Shared Values — the core values of the team that are evidenced in its culture and general work ethic.
As shared values change, so will all the other elements. But when all seven elements are aligned they have enormous power to generate project success.
Have you used the McKinsey 7-S model or something similar on your projects? How can this type of approach help drive team performance improvements?